The Player: Collins sets out to reclaim 'sweet spot' for NFL sponsors

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In late May, the National Football League finalized a deal with Bayer Pharmaceuticals Corp. and GlaxoSmithKline, making their jointly produced erectile-dysfunction drug Levitra a sponsor of the league. At $18 million for the three-year sponsorship, plus another $50 million in media buys, it represents a new category for the NFL, prompting John Collins, the league's senior VP-sales and marketing, to term it an "ambitious step."

Last month, Mr. Collins helped finalize another deal with a high-profile marketer, this time bringing in IBM Corp. as the NFL's official information-technology partner in a similar three-year agreement.

Between extending sponsorship agreements with current partners and swinging deals with new marketers, he has been busy. But that's a good thing.

"We spent the last couple of years really beginning to understand and articulate the power of the NFL brand," he said. "We learned a number of things. The real power is to bring people together and make an emotional and social connection. There are very few things that bring 120 million people together every weekend. That's the NFL."

"John's a professional," said Rick Singer, director of IBM's worldwide sponsorship marketing. "He understands both sides of a relationship. In this instance, the NFL saw into the future and how we can help them become an `on-demand' business."

Mr. Collins said his focus is to reclaim the NFL's core constituency, men ages 18 to 34, "the sweet spot for us but sometimes the hardest for advertisers to reach."

One of his most successful moves was making an event out of the opening weekend of the season. For the first time, the league last season moved one game off the opening Sunday schedule and pushed it back three days to the prior Thursday.

Since the game was hosted by the New York Giants, the league also had a kickoff extravaganza party that night with a concert by Bon Jovi in Times Square. "We wanted a way to start the season as big as we end it," Mr. Collins said.

It worked. Viewership of men 18 to 34 for the opening weekend of games was up 14%, and teen viewership was up 42%. The season-opening game on ABC's "Monday Night Football" received its highest rating in seven years.

repeat performance

The NFL plans to repeat the effort this year with a Thursday game in Washington, D.C., and a concert featuring Britney Spears.

"That," Mr. Collins said, "was a signal to our current sponsors and new sponsors that we were going to be successful. We have approximately $2 billion worth of advertising that flows into the marketplace. Part of the job is to understand the positive flow of that advertising. Our sell is just becoming a more powerful proposition. Our feeling is that we compete not just with the sports products in the minds of marketers but with all the entertainment options that are out there."

Fast Facts

Name: John Collins

Age: 41

Now: Senior VP-sales and marketing, National Football League

Challenge: To take the NFL into the next era of corporate sponsorship.

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